“These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron” (Numbers 33:1).
The Scriptures here arrange a summary of the journeys of the children of Israel. As usual, a comparison of what is written in our portion and what is written other places in the Torah is not flattering to the writing, for there is not a full correspondence between the journeys detailed until now and those detailed in this portion. In Numbers 21:11 it is written, “They encamped at Iye-Abarim…from there they journeyed and encamped at Wadi Zered.” In our portion, verse 33:43-44, “They…encamped at Iye-Abarim…They set out from Iyim and encamped at Dibon-Gad.” There are many more such examples. Of course the Torah commentators turn all these different places into the same place with different names. But even if it is true, why did the Scriptures have to confuse the reader with different names for the same encampments instead of detailing all in an orderly and continuous way as appropriate for a book authored by Him who spoke and the world came into being?
Come see how Chazal acted about a confusing Scripture. In Exodus 15:22 it says, “Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur…They came to Marah…that is why it was named Marah.” In our portion, Numbers 33:8, “They…passed through the sea into the wilderness and they made a three-days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and encamped at Marah.” Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 15:22) and the Radak (on Judges 11:16) wrote that the wilderness of Shur is the wilderness of Etham. Chazal said (Shemot Rabbah, portion 24): “We do not find that there is a wilderness named Shur. What is the wilderness of Shur?…The wilderness of Shur [is] the wilderness of Kov [apparently the name of a well-known wilderness at the time of Chazal]. R’ Aba once related before our rabbis that a man passed through the wilderness of Kov and saw a snake asleep…he saw the snake and the snake did not see him, but he grew so confused and scared that all his hair fell out, and they called him ‘the plucked one.’ This is why Moses told the people of Israel, ‘Who leads you through the great and terrible wilderness’ (Deuteronomy 9:15).” See there for various commentaries about the wilderness of Shur. We have brought this midrash to show that Chazal, when puzzled by the question of which wilderness is written about in the Torah, do not hesitate to give name to the wilderness, even without any proof or authority.
To strengthen our words we will bring what Chazal said in Tractate Shabbat 89a, “R’ Yossi the son of R’ Chanina said, [the desert] has five names. The wilderness of Tzin for the people of Israel were commanded [nitztavu] there; the wilderness of Kadesh, for the people of Israel were sanctified [nitkadshu] there; the wilderness of Kadmot, for the ancient law [kduma, i.e. the Torah] was given there; the wilderness of Paran, for the people of Israel multiplied (paru) and increased there; the wilderness of Sinai, for the hatred (sinah) of idolaters descended there. And what is its name? Horeb is its name.” This is exactly as what we have already written in many places, that Chazal connect disparate people and make them into one person; see what we wrote on the portion of Miketz. (They also made several different birds into one, see what we wrote on the portion of Shmini, and turned the harvest season into the season of reaping, as we wrote on the portion of Behar.) We find here different wildernesses being combined into one, and the Tosfot on Tractate Shabbat 89a, third reference, wondered about it: “It is difficult for R’ Yitzchak, for anyway [one must conclude that] the wilderness of Tzin is not the wilderness of Paran… If so, the wildernesses of Tzin, Paran, and the Sinai desert were not one and the same, and R’ Yitzchak explains that were all one big desert… Yet, R’ Yitzchak finds what is said about the wilderness of Kadmot difficult, for it is written (in Deuteronomy 2:26) that the wilderness of Kadmot was to the east of the land of Israel… So how is it possible that it was the wilderness of Sinai?” The Tosfot remained with this puzzle and no answer.
All this introduction is only to ask why the Torah even needs to detail the journeys of the Israelites. Why do we need this list? This question can also be asked in a more general sense about all the Torah stories which teach us nothing. Maimonides deals with this question in “A Guide to the Perplexed,” part three, chapter 50: “The stories in the Torah which many might think serve no purpose in being mentioned…know that every story you find written in the Torah is for a necessary cause in the Torah…The mention of the journeys would seem, on the face of it, to have no purpose…but the need for it is most great, for all the wonders are real only to one who had seen them…and it is possible that a reader will make them out to be lies…And since G-d knew that it was possible that His wonders might be doubted in the future…for that reason He lessened these thoughts and strengthened the issues of the wonders through a clarification of those travels, so that the following generations also should see them and know the glory of the wonders.” That is, according to Maimonides the reason for the great detail in telling the journeys of the children of Israel is to make the reader believe that the wonders of the desert, the eating of the manna and their clothing not wearing out, did happen. The words of Maimonides are beyond us: if the reader is a religious Jew, why should he doubt the words of the Living G-d? It would be enough for him if He who created the world said one sentence about how He passed the vast nation through the great wilderness without mishap, through miraculous means. But if the reader doubts the veracity of the Scripture, what will a detailing of places help? The reader will also claim that the Scripture made the places up, just as any author makes up names and places from his fertile imagination.
Know that Chazal struggled over this question, about the things which are written in the Torah from which we learn nothing, in Tractate Sanhedrin 99b: “Menasse the son of Hezkiyah would sit and explicate the unusual, saying: perhaps Moses did not need to write ‘And the sister of Lotan was Timna, and Timna was a concubine to Eliphaz,’ or ‘And Rueben went in the days of the wheat harvest and found mandrakes in the field’?” Rashi explained: “It is something which was not needed [to learn something from it] and he would mock, saying: Moses did not need to write them.” What do Chazal answer? Why do they say we need to know that Lotan’s sister was named Timna? “What does ‘And the sister of Lotan was Timna’ mean? Timna was a daughter of kings, and she wanted to convert. She came to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz…and one of her descendants was Amalek, the oppressor of Jews. Why? For they pushed her away.” According to Chazal, the reason it is written in the Torah that Lotan’s sister was Timna is to teach us, via a complicated story, not to push away those who wish to convert! This is not written in the Torah (and there is no need to say that none of the details of the story are mentioned in the Torah); why couldn’t the Torah have clearly written, “Accept those who wish to convert and do not push them away”?
Some of our rabbis were not satisfied with these explanations. What could they do if the questions and contradictions remained? They went and claimed that one should not learn the Torah according to the simple meaning. As written in “Tzitz Eliezer” Responsa, part 16, section 37, in the name of the Chatam Sofer: “Any who grabs the Torah in its nakedness — that is, who thinks it is as according to its plain meaning without its garments, even concerning the verse ‘And the sister of Lotan was Timna’ — would be buried in his nakedness, for everything in the Torah has its secrets, but they are hidden in garments.” When the excuses of those who explicate the plain meaning are not accepted they immediately find hidden secrets, and even instill fear on those who think the Torah is as its plain meaning. It is clear and known that once we fall into the world of secrets there is no barrier nor hindrance in the way of inventions and exaggerations. Any who enter can invent unjustified explanations.
For example, Nachmanides wrote in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah: “We also have in our hands a true tradition that the whole Torah is G-d’s names…So it seems, because of this reason, that the Torah, written as black fire upon white fire, was written continuously, with no word breaks.” The Maharsha wrote on Tractate Berachot 21a: “For the name of G-d I shall call, ascribe greatness to our G-d: this is when I read the Torah, which is all the names of the Holy One, blessed be He — for the whole Torah in its letters is the names of the Holy One, blessed be He, as said in the Midrash.” There are thousands of examples like these, and from here to “He looked in the Torah and created the world” it is only a short step.
See how, when our rabbis cannot settle Scriptural contradictions in logical ways acceptable to common sense, they reject wisdom and knowledge in favor of the hidden world. And from what is it hidden? From investigation and logical examination. As Ibn Ezra wrote (Genesis 25:34): “And do not put us off with the vague reply of the level of drash, for it has the level of sod.” Those who use the level of sod and the Kabbalah claim from the start that all their words are matters of secret and cannot be logically refuted (and if not logically, how can they be refuted?). About these sorts of things we say that one who wants to befog matters or lie or set things up which cannot be logically accepted, will immediately say they are all secret things. If you say “secret” you can already excuse, explain, forbid and permit whatever you desire and instill fear in the hearts of fools.
Words of True Knowledge.